High Angle View Of Garbage Can On Sidewalk

Garbage In, Garbage Out

By Jeff Boedges, Co-Founder of SoHo Experiential

Getting and giving a good brief is the surest way to avoid having to polish a turd. Every minute you spend up front will save you 60 minutes down the line.

Most everyone who has ever worked with me has heard me share wisdom from my grandfather.  Granddad was an engineer for the phone company back when pensions and one-job-for-life paved the road to happiness.  But he was more than a guy that climbed telephone poles; he was a true renaissance man, as gifted with his amazing imagination as he was with his hands.  He was an excellent painter, an RC airplane enthusiast – lest you doubt the difficulty of this “hobby” I invite you to give it a try.   He was also an accomplished amateur gun smith, though he never created anything that could be fired more than once per minute, even by the fastest Civil War soldier.   

My grandpa’s workshop/studio/factory was a place of endless fascination for me as a child.  Watching the old man work his crafts, I learned some valuable lessons about planning a project before getting started, lessons I still use today.  When it came to planning, one of Grandpa’s favorite sayings was, “Jeff, you can’t polish a turd.”  While initially I didn’t really get the larger meaning of the statement, as I grew up it became apparent that a truer bit of wisdom was never uttered by Aristotle himself.  

As I got older I learned that good work doesn’t just happen.  It starts with a solid strategy, aligned tactics and excellent execution.  What I learned about turd polishing can be summed up as even excellent execution of a bad plan won’t get you the result you are aiming for.   

So here’s where the lesson comes to bear in Experiential; far too often people are ready to jump into a project without laying out a cogent plan first.  How many times have you said: “I’ve got a bad brief”?  Now, truthfully, ask yourself how often you’ve given a bad brief.  The sad fact is that everyone does it.  The minute we get slammed we start to cut corners, giving incomplete, confusing, or inaccurate directions.  On the flip side, when we’re busy we are much more likely to accept a poorly constructed brief.  

It is almost unavoidable that when you give, or accept, a bad brief, your Experiential Output won’t do what you want it to, or worse, it will disappoint a client so badly that you’ll lose said client.   But as most know or eventually figure out, a good brief is the stitch in time that saves nine.  

So how do you avoid wasting countless hours, resources, and your sanity?  Well, here are 5 steps that will help you get, and give, better briefs.  They won’t guarantee an existence free of turd polishing, but they should help reduce the frequency dramatically.

  1. Listen Well
  • Have you ever listened to someone answer a question for 10 minutes, but after the first minute, you know that they are answering the wrong question? So, before answering, paraphrase the question at least one or two times to make sure you are on the same page: “So what you want are bears, on unicycles, juggling chainsaws?”
  • When delivering a brief to an employee, vendor, or department head, never assume they know what you actually mean.  I have become the master of the PowerPoint sketch and mood boards.  They will help create the size, look, feel, energy, and ambiance you want when designing experiences.   
  1. Define Success
  • Avoid ambiguous words and clichés; so many clients have tasked us with creating “cool” experiences that we have made the word “illegal” on any brief we create or accept.  
  • All objectives should be clearly defined and quantifiable in the context of the brand; “cool” to Pandora Radio will look markedly different than cool to Pandora Jewelry.  If you really want a “cool” event, try using a style guide, mood board, and ideal attendee descriptors.
  • “Surprise and delight” really just means – don’t bore the hell out of our customers – yep, we get that, so focus on what that phrase means to you in terms of quantifiable measures.
  • Quantify everything – if buzz is what you want, speak in terms of social media hits, PR placements, or even just attendance.  
  1. Beware the Contradiction
  • This is possibly my least favorite part of any brief, the inherent contradiction: “We want a very intimate, luxurious event.  For 10,000 people at $5 per head.” Tasking people to be creative problem solvers can often lead to excellent, new ideas – tasking them with the impossible wastes everyone’s time and resources.  
  • List your goals and objectives in priority order, get the top ones right first and be prepared to make sacrifices the farther you move down the list.
  1. Do your research
  • Here’s another question; how many times have people come back to you with an idea you’ve tried in the past that didn’t work?  “We tried that! Bears don’t have opposable thumbs so they simply can’t hold a chainsaw!”
  • Undoubtedly the biggest mistake that most Experiential managers make is that they assume they have “all the information”. Be sure to build in the time to look at the environment you will be working in.  
  • Examine your own brand’s past successes and failures, look at the competitive environment and what they’re doing, and lastly, make sure you know what’s relevant to the target consumer group.  
  1. Learn to love candor  
  • If you are seeking clarity on a brief delivered to you, say so in plain English. he briefer may get offended, but they will feel better when you produce an awesome experience for them later.
  • If you are delivering a brief, and someone looks confused, call them out on it.  People don’t want to look dim, so they act like they get something even when they don’t; if they look like they don’t get it, assume that they don’t and rephrase.

Getting and giving a good brief is the surest way to avoid having to polish a turd.   Every minute you spend up front will save you 60 minutes down the line.